Thirty two years ago, near the end of the War in Vietnam, I was living in San Francisco, and my close friend, ex-Sgt. Van Dale Todd, a combat veteran of the 101st Airborne, lived in a another apartment of the same building. It was an old Victorian house out on 29th Street. Sometimes Van would take a notion to hit the wall which separated our apartments with his fist and shout, "Who the fuck would join the Marine Corps?" And I'd yell back, "Airborne sucks!" "The Marine Corps sucks!" "Only two things come out of the sky," I'd yell back again, "Bird shit and fools!" That was how we said good morning to each other. It was our ritualized greeting.
We were both active in a veterans antiwar group, and the two of us used to get together almost every day and talk about the war, politics and other things. He told me about his experiences in "Nam," the killing he'd seen and participated in. Although I'd spent four years in the USMC, that was before Vietnam. So while we both opposed the war and shared similar opinions on it, Van often reminded me that he was the one who'd been there and experienced it. "You weren't in Nam," he'd often say, "You're coming from a philosophical point of view. You don't know what it's like to see your buddies die in front of you." It seemed to be Van's one-upmanship, or at least that's the way I took it. People who've been through a certain experience sometimes insist that they have a special claim on knowledge and understanding of the subject.
One night at around midnight he came to my place and pounded on the door. "I've got something to show you!" he shouted. When I opened the door I could see he was terribly upset, apparently in a violent mood. He demanded that I go with him to his apartment and see whatever it was that he wanted to show me. As soon as we went in, he took out a bottle of bright red pills and swallowed all of them in front of me. "I killed seven people in Nam," he said. He'd told me that before, but this time he added, "I can't live with it any more!" He also told me once again, as he had so many times before, "You don't know what it's like to see your buddies die."
I told him to sit down and take it easy. Within minutes he had passed out. I went for help and got him to a hospital where he died a week later without ever regaining consciousness. I later learned that the red pills he'd overdosed on were Seconal, which is a type of sleeping pill. People also told me, "When somebody O.D.s on downers, you never want to let them sit down. You gotta keep them walking."
Van had once believed in the war, and he was a guy who fought for what he believed in. He enlisted in the Army, volunteered for Vietnam, asked to be assigned to the airborne infantry -- and got it all. And when his year in Nam was up, he asked for another. In all he spent seventeen months in combat with the 101st Airborne. That was back in 1969 and 1970. After returning from Vietnam, however, Van began to have second thoughts about the war. He took part in peace marches, and on April 17th, 1972, he and I were part of a group of sixteen ex-GIs who occupied an Air Force recruiting office in San Francisco to protest the war.
Nevertheless, Van was not really political, or maybe I should say he wasn't much given to theories or philosophical speculation. Instead of looking at what U.S. corporations were doing around the world, and how he'd been exploited into defending them, he blamed himself for what he'd done, and tormented himself for having "enjoyed" it. "I loved combat," he used to say, shaking his head remorsefully. "I was so sick I loved to kill."
By the time I'd met him, of course, he was no longer in love with war. In a diary we found after his death, he'd written: "Vietnam left me so alone. Why or how could I take the life of a human? Why was killing humans fun? Can God forgive me?" It must have bothered him back in Vietnam, too, because he'd found refuge in drugs. "I got this medal for killing two people," he'd say, showing me a bronze star, "and when I did it I was high on opium."
Van didn't want another G.I. sent to Nam because he knew that a person can come back traumatized. He said many times, "I don't want my little brother Sam, or anybody's little brother, to go and see what I saw or do what I did." But as much as he hated the war, he still believed very deeply in something he called "America." And in Van's "America," there was still something left of that romantic, mythical age when you could just walk into the White House and talk with the President and tell him the problem. Van saw public officials as people who listen -- which sometimes they do, but not quite as often as Van seemed to think.
I believe that's what his thinking was on April 17th, when sixteen of us occupied the Air Force recruiting office. After three hours' occupation, Federal Marshals broke the door down and arrested us. We spent the night in jail and were bailed out the next day.
On April 21, we went back to court for a preliminary appearance and got our first look at Judge Lloyd Burke. Judge Burke sat there, just leaning on his elbow and looking completely bored, like an old railroad engineer gazing at the scenery along the spur he's been chugging up and down for the last twenty years. The charge was "disorderly conduct," and using the pretext that it was a "minor offense," the judge refused us a trial by jury. When our attorney pointed out that trial by jury was a Constitutional right, stated in the Sixth, Seventh and Fourteenth Amendments, Judge Burke just said, "Overruled," without even lifting his chin off his elbow, and then he set our trial dates.
To Van, it was a pretty heavy shock. About all he could say when we got home was, "The Man [Judge Burke] just doesn't give a shit about us!" "Did you expect him to?" I said. "No-o-o," Van answered slowly, "I guess not." And he just sat there for a long time with a vacant look in his eyes. I tried to explain to him that this judge wasn't there to give us a fair trial. "Judge Burke's a cog of the war machine," I said. "He was obviously assigned to our case for the purpose of putting some quasi-legal façade on a very dubious process. The reason for denying us a jury trial is that he wanted to find us guilty."
Our group had done a similar action in December 1971, occupying the offices of the South Vietnamese Consulate. We'd been tried by a jury and acquitted at the end of a four-week trial in March 1972. So this time the powers-that-be apparently distrusted the jury process. Perhaps Van understood my explanation, but he seemed unable to accept it.
Five of us, including Van and myself, went on trial a week later in the courtroom of a different judge, Judge Robert Schnake. This judge didn't lean on his elbow, but he did reaffirm the decision to deny us our Constitutional right to trial by jury, and then found us all guilty at the end of a two-hour session.
The irony of this process is compounded if one pauses to recall that trial by jury is one of the most fundamental American rights which Van and other GIs had supposedly fought to defend. Although it has often been wrongfully denied, as it was in our case, the right to trial by jury is an ancient principle of English and American law which existed before the U.S. Constitution was written, and even before the thirteen colonies were founded. It goes back to the Magna Carta of 1215 A.D.
Before sentencing we were each allowed to say a few words. Van, wearing all his medals on his fatigue jacket, stood up and began: "I was a machine gunner . . ." He told of the horrors he'd seen and even committed himself, and of his buddies he'd seen die. He told the judge that the government just had to stop sending American GIs to Vietnam. Judge Schnake nodded. He seemed to be listening. But he sentenced each of us to 30 days and fined us each $50. We appealed it, and the way it eventually turned out, we paid the $50 but didn't go to jail.
Judges Burke and Schnake were both former prosecutors. As judges they did their job as functionaries of the system that sends American GIs abroad to kill or be killed in defense of U.S. corporate strategy. But to Van there was no such thing as a "system" -- just "America." These judges represented the "America" he believed in, and the experience devastated him. From then on, he acted like a person utterly lost. He became so lonely that he dropped by my apartment five or ten times a day, sometimes even at one or two in the morning.
Van had been known to smoke a joint before, and occasionally I'd seen him stoned. But after seeing these judges, he seemed to be stoned much more of the time, as well as drunk. I'd never seen him inebriated before that. Two small glasses of wine had been his limit. But after the trial, he'd often put away half a gallon of wine in a day. The overnight change in him was phenomenal. His war memories bothered him more and more, and he'd talk about people he'd seen killed. "Do you know what it's like to see your buddies die?" He'd keep saying. And he told me of a woman he'd killed, and he'd say: "Do you know what it's like to kill a mother who's crying because her children are all dead?"
It was two weeks after our trial that he took the overdose of Seconal. We gave him a veteran's antiwar funeral, and veterans came from all over the Bay Area, almost everybody wearing military fatigue jackets. We buried him in his combat uniform with his service medals and his button which proclaimed him to be a member of VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against the War). While five veterans and a woman carried out the coffin, everybody lined up in two rows and gave Van a clenched-fist salute.
On returning home that afternoon, I went next door, into the vacant apartment where Van had lived until so recently. "Airborne sucks!" I called out. Van's things were gone, and the place was empty now. It was an emptiness that left room for my voice to echo back and forth between the walls. I tried again, louder than before, "Only two things come out of the sky!" Again, there was an echo, a louder echo of course, but still only of my own voice. It was followed by the creaking of wooden floorboards under my feet in this old Victorian house.
That was 32 years ago. Today our soldiers are fighting in Iraq, and since last fall there have been reports of GI suicides over there. An article in the November 23, 2003 issue of the Oakland Tribune read: "Since April, the military says, at least 17 Americans -- 15 Army soldiers and two Marines -- have taken their own lives in Iraq. The true number is almost certainly higher. At least two dozen noncombat deaths, some of them possible suicides, are under investigation according to an AP review of Army casualty reports." The situation was alarming enough that the U.S. military sent a mental health assessment team to Iraq to see what could be done to prevent suicides and to help troops better cope with anxiety and depression.
Although I'm glad to see that the military is making an effort, I think it is limited in what it can do. The basic problem starts with the fact that American GIs are in Iraq, and memories of that experience are likely to be a lifelong affliction for some of them. I should hardly need to point out that Van did not kill himself while he was in Vietnam; it was after he came home that he died, some two years afterwards. If GIs are killing themselves already, it's a bad sign for the future. It should be obvious that we have to get our troops home, out of Iraq.
However, even pulling our troops out of Iraq wouldn't be quite enough. Van didn't kill himself only because of his traumatic memories; what really did him in was his discovery that something he believed he'd fought for wasn't real. When Van got his day in court, it was without a jury. He expected to be heard when he spoke on a subject he knew so well -- the war. Instead, the judges made it graphically clear to him that he had no voice, and the commercial media also failed to relate any of his story or what happened to him. As far as I can tell, his death was not even recorded as a statistic.
Since Americans across the political spectrum tend to respect GIs and veterans, the government and the commercial media often try to manipulate our feelings of obligation to serve their own purposes. "Support our troops," they tell us, when they're sending them out to be killed, injured, traumatized and subjected to poisonous substances.
After the Vietnam War, veterans had all sorts of problems that the government was slow to deal with. Likewise after the First Gulf War. The same thing is likely to happen again because the people in power today are extremely unwilling to put money into any program that doesn't directly benefit some major corporation. Today's veterans can expect to see monuments constructed in their honor, but when this war is over and they speak out about real problems, they are likely to find that they have no more voice than Van did. Ironically, given our government's misuse of the armed forces and neglect of veterans, it may be left to the antiwar movement to defend these people's rights.